August 17, 2022

'Behind the Scenes' - Vegetable Cultivation in Sankrail

When an NGO talks about its various programmes and models of intervention, they often paint the bigger picture of the tangible results, the work as it exists today, and the impacts being made on lives.  Rarely do we get the back story – the story of the evolution of the programme and how it came to be in the first place … 

When you scratch the surface of programmes at ACF, you begin to understand the massive effort that goes into each program by on-ground teams, working very collaboratively with communities to find the best solution to meet their needs.

To demonstrate this, today we take you ‘behind the scenes’ of the Vegetable Cultivation programme in Sankrail, which stands as a shining example of a programme that is doubling farmer incomes and lifting people out of poverty.  Amitesh Chandra, the Agriculture Program Executive at ACF in Sankrail, shares the journey and in doing so, we begin to understand that the ‘devil is in the detail!’ 

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Their journey is inspiring …



“Initially when I joined ACF in 2008 in West Bengal, we were only promoting SRI and were not making any meaningful intervention in the area of vegetables. Whilst the SRI programme was a resounding success, we soon realised that in order to exponentially increase farmer incomes, paddy alone was not enough. We realised we should intervene in vegetables and thought ‘what to do?’  We realised the farmers were the best people to tell us what to do, and so we did one on one interviews with farmers, followed by a structured workshop with them.

First we tried to find out what were the gaps? Farmers said that they cultivated vegetables but didn’t get a proper price in the market for them. So we designed a questionnaire for the local market to find out which season has a higher price.  We analysed this in the workshop and found a mismatch - when price was high, production was not there.  Collectively we wondered, ‘Can we align to this?’ So from that, the idea of ‘off-season vegetable cultivation ‘came.

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Off Season Vegetable Cultivation

In order to help farmers get started growing vegetables in the ‘off season’, we consulted with experts on various models so that we had different options to promote to farmers, based on their land size and available resources.  The following options were floated among farmers:

1.    Poly Tunnel - If a farmer has limited financial resources, we promote poly tunnel which is 3ft height and has an advantage in that when it’s not raining farmers can remove the plastic as too much heat is generated inside tunnel. It’s very low cost and only used for the rainy season.

2.    Rain Shelter – A rain shelter is 6ft high and is a little more expensive than a poly tunnel. Here farmers are involved in multiple occupations so you don’t need to remove plastic. In winter farmers can use this as scaffolding to grow creeper vegetables. Farmers can also do ‘sticking’ hang ropes or bamboo so the plants like tomatoes can grow tall.  It is primarily used in the rainy and winter season.

3.    Bamboo Structure Polyhouse – This option is for farmers who don’t have much money to invest. Farmers have to provide the bamboo, plastic and labour, whilst sprinkler irrigation is provided by the horticultural department.

4.    Permanent Poly House – One option is a permanent Polyhouse with UV protected plastic imported from Israel. It costs around Rs. 5.5 lakh for 500sqm, but has benefit in that it can be used all year round year after year. We linked farmers with the horticulture department which gave a subsidy of Rs. 3 lakhs, NABARD and ACF tops up with a little more support for construction of each poly house. This option is for farmers who have some financial resources to invest.

Exotic Vegetable Cultivation

Another idea that emerged from the farmer workshop, was that of cultivating exotic vegetables. Normally farmers grow seasonal vegetables, but then everyone is growing them too and so it is available everywhere in the market. If we do something different, then demand is higher and we can get a higher price.

But before starting exotic vegetables we took farmers to where exotic vegetables were being grown, as well as to New Market in Kolkata, to better understand what varieties were in demand, direct from the market sellers. One reason for taking them to New Market was so they can learn about the quality that is needed. Farmers saw that Pak choi was very small – this is the size that the market wants. As for cherry tomato, they learned that the round (red) variety is in demand rather than the oval orange variety. Vegetable vendors shared information on market demand and they helped with inputs. It was very helpful for everyone so farmers could fine tune production according to the street market. In New Market, farmers can obtain a better price if they have transport, however we also learnt that city markets are very volatile. So we decided we should promote those exotic vegetables that are in demand with local customers.

We tried a lot of varieties initially and tested the market, but are now restricting ourselves to what has ‘local’ demand.  Initially we promoted ‘coloured cauliflower’ (purple and yellow), zucchini yellow and green, some red cabbage Chinese cabbage, cherry tomato, parsley, celery, brussels sprouts, broccoli and hot peppers coloured capsicums, lettuces, and bok choy.  It was a good learning, and we found that in the local market, purple cabbage was getting sold like hotcakes. We have found a fair market for lettuce and Pak Choi. Broccoli was also good in the local market. It has been a real trial and error and of course it hasn’t been without challenges - this year we had bumper production in cherry tomatoes but simply couldn’t find a proper market for them, as demand was low.

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Scaffolding for creeper vegetables

At the main field: Initially from the market survey and workshop we could find out that the quality of the creeper vegetables grown by the local farmers were of inferior quality as most of them grew these vegetables on the ground. These structure were low in height, completely made of bamboo and had no proper facility for the plants to spread at the sides. ACF introduced low cost, improved and scientific scaffolding structures of more than 6 feet height on the main field made in combination of bamboo, GI weir, nylon ropes etc. It had a proper facility for the farmers to work inside the scaffolding structure, grow other vegetables on the ground with creeper vegetables on scaffoldings. It had proper facility for the vegetables to hang as a result the quality of the vegetables improved.

At the bunds: Traditionally bunds of the ponds/paddy fields were idle and over grown with weeds and where harmful animals nested. ACF promoted specially designed scaffolding at these bunds for creeper vegetable cultivation. Farmers who once used to spend Rs.1000/- p.a for clearing weeds at the bunds of a 10 katha pond/paddy field are now earning an additional Rs.7500/- p.a. It is also providing shelter to fish for resting during summer months, reducing fish mortality.


Ideas & Innovations

Developing and evolving programmes, takes ideas and innovation.  A few ideas we borrowed and a few ideas we developed in the field. Our workshop and farmers focus group discussions are key places where we usually come up with most of these ideas and it helps because the farmers are involved in developing the ideas and they ‘own it.’  We also do exposure visits to other local organisations so that farmers can see different approaches.  

We are continually looking at ways that we can improve outcomes for farmers - how to improve programmes and how to innovate. Management encourages us to innovate a lot – you can’t run the same type of programme year on year and we need to keep evolving so that farmers continue to learn new things.  Thankfully our core value is our inherent belief in farmers & traditional wisdom. This motivates us to think outside the box.”

August 17, 2022

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